Larry Lessig's Latest Big Challenge: Fixing The Way We Elect A President

from the another-big-project dept

Over the last few years, Larry Lessig has not shied away from trying to bring about change to the corruption he sees in our political system with "big" projects. Rather than chipping away at ideas, Lessig has been announcing huge, almost impossible plans, generating lots of attention and hoping that they either create real change, or at the very least, create discussion on the topics he's attacking. So far, even he admits that most of those projects have been less than successful in achieving their goals. Back in 2014, there was his attempt to build a crowdfunded SuperPAC with the goal of ending SuperPACs (supporting candidates who would change campaign finance). While they raised a lot of money, Lessig admitted that the organization failed to make a real difference in the elections it participated in. Then there was the plan to call a new Constitutional Convention (which continues to garner discussion to this day, but mainly from those ideologically opposed to Lessig). And, of course, the failed campaign to be the Democratic nominee for President, where his main goal was to get into the debates -- only to have the Democrats change the rules to keep him out.

Each of these can certainly have the appearance of a rather quixotic approach to taking on government corruption. And while there are many things I do agree with Lessig on, there's also a pretty long list where I disagree with him. But, what I respect is that even as outwardly "crazy" as many of these plans appear to be, there's always an astoundingly detailed, well-thought out and well-argued logic behind them, even if the likelihood of success is low. He's making big gestures that may have a low probability of success, but these aren't campaigns that have just been thrown together on a whim -- they have a clear purpose and fit in with a larger theme, often trying to game the system in some clever way. They're gimmicky, but in ways that at least make you think.

All of that is true with his latest project as well: an attempt to change the way we elect the president. Obviously, many people who were upset with the results of last year's election (and lingering anger about the 2000 election) have been arguing that it's time to get rid of the electoral college. And, frankly, it's kind of difficult to justify why we still have an electoral college when it's quite clear that it serves no really useful function. But, of course, because of the way things worked out in 2000 and 2016, even discussing the problems of the electoral college have become (stupidly) partisan. And, because it's part of the Constitution, getting rid of the electoral college is a near impossibility.

So, instead, Lessig is attacking things a step down the chain with his EqualVotes campaign. The argument, again, makes a lot of sense. Don't get rid of the electoral college -- but stop giving all electoral votes in a state to the winner of the popular vote in that state. This is the part that's really undemocratic. As Lessig explains:

A Republican from California is no less a United States citizen than a Democrat. Yet her vote for President counts for nothing. Likewise with a Democrat in Texas. There is no reason not to allocate electors in a way that gives equal weight to every citizen’s vote, at least within the constraints of the framers’ original compromise.

States initially adopted “winner take all” because it amplified the power of that state’s votes. This troubled even Jefferson, who recognized the incentive to try to expand a state’s influence. As he wrote, “[a]n election by districts would be best if it could be general, but while ten States choose either by legislatures or by [winner take all] it is folly and worse than folly for the other States not to do it.”

Yet once (practically) every other state had embraced winner take all, its important effect was not to amplify, but to shift the focus of the presidential campaigns. This is because under “winner take all,” the only states in which it makes any sense for a presidential candidate to campaign are “battleground states” — states in which the popular vote can be expected to be so close that one side has a real chance to beat the other.

Thus in 2016, two-thirds of campaign events happened in just 6 battleground states — Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Michigan. Four battleground states — Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania — saw 71% of campaign ad spending and 57% of candidate appearances. All together, the 14 battleground states saw 99% of ad spending and 95% of candidate visits for campaign purposes.

The argument, then, is to try to force states away from "winner-take-all." Right now, only Maine and Nebraska don't do winner take all with their electoral college votes, but they both don't have many votes anyway.

Lessig's plan to bring this about is to bring legal challenges and hopefully get them to the Supreme Court. As Lessig explains:

The Supreme Court has made it clear that the principle of “one person, one vote” applies in the “Presidential selection process”—first in a set of cases in the 1960s, and most recently, in 2000, in a case called Bush v. Gore. But the Court has not yet considered whether “winner take all” rules are themselves consistent with “one person, one vote.” Delaware asked the Supreme Court to consider the question 50 years ago. The Court declined the request for review.

It is long past time for the Court to address this inequality directly.

In a separate post, Lessig has laid out the reasoning more clearly and responded to some of the key questions. The sort of judo move here, is that Lessig is effectively trying to use the Supreme Court's reasoning in Bush v. Gore to make this work -- and he's argued that if you supported the Supreme Court in that ruling, you're being inconsistent if you argue against the case he's hoping to bring, as they're based on the same principles of one person, one vote.

The real question for the opponents here is Bush v. Gore (2000): If the application of “one person, one vote” to restrict winner-take-all is invalid because the Framers never intended the clause to be used in that way, was the application of “one person, one vote” to the Florida recount invalid, because of course, the Framers of the 14th Amendment had no intent whatsoever about the Supreme Court supervising the state’s rules for counting or recounting votes?

The point is just this: It’s perfectly respectable to say, Bush was wrong, and our claim is wrong as well. But it is selective to say, Bush was right, but our claim is wrong.

Of course, there are still others who argue that a proportional breakdown will create other problems as well, such as those who support an even more radical change: to a ranked choice voting system. And while I agree that a ranked choice setup would be much better, it has basically zero chance of happening any time soon. Lessig's chances with this lawsuit appear quite slim as well, but they're at least above zero. And, yes, I'm sure some people will point to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, as a sort of "competing" idea to Lessig's to force a move to make the popular vote actually matter -- and Lessig has said he's supportive of that effort too -- he just sees EqualVote as another way of forcing the issue.

Either way, this is a project worth paying attention to -- even if it may be a longshot. Lessig may take a lot of these longshots, but if he gets one right, it could have a pretty major impact.

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 Sep 2017 @ 11:10am

    Re: Everyone is missing the really critical point.

    It is hyper-naive to not realize or even investigate the darker deeper state of the nation running the core of the government that are responsible for these choices we suppposedly have. And it is equally naive to suppise these people aren't part of some deeper narrative of a treasonous agenda.

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